Patrick Mulcahy on the state of the film industry
After nominating himself for Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year 2017’, US President Donald Trump must have shrugged his shoulder pads when he learned that the iconic American magazine chose instead the many women who came forward to accuse those in power in the entertainment industry and beyond of sexual abuse. The #MeToo campaign took hold as victims of predatory sexual behaviour undertaken in the workplace spoke out against their attackers. Film producer, Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged sexual abuse was aggressive and as widespread as his Oscar campaigns, checked himself into rehab. A Republican Senatorial candidate, Roy Moore, whose campaign prompted reporters of abuse to come forward, lost his party a safe seat. Without even waiting for an accuser, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock fessed up. The Dream Factory of Hollywood is now the Shame Factory.
But what does this mean for the film industry in 2018? Will there be a shift towards more women in positions in power in Hollywood? Or rather will there be a dart towards conservative behaviour. We have seen credits at the end of films affirming ecological practices (‘Green is Universal’) and declaring that no money was taken for the endorsement of tobacco products. Will there be a caption: no woman was paid less than a man for doing the same job in the production of this movie?
Pay parity was raised by Patricia Arquette when she collected the Best Supporting Actress award for Boyhood in 2015. However, Hollywood is undergoing a seismic shift that was unanticipated in 2016: popular entertainment is out of step with populism.
It is safe to say that the Hollywood elite predicted a Hillary Clinton victory in the race for the White House. It did not imagine that the majority of states would opt for a sexist, racist bully with no regard for the rules-based international system. Instead of containing its rivals, America in 2017 started to imitate them, throwing away decades of competitive advantage for the protectionist concept of ‘America First’.
What passed for entertainment in 2016 didn’t find favour in 2017. Although the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast and superhero movies Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and Spiderman: Homecoming did solid business (to use Hollywood parlance) every major studio released films that either underperformed (The Mummy remake, War for the Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner 2049) or proved an outright flop (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Monster Trucks, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets).
The ‘Awards bait’ drama, Battle of the Sexes, summed up how out of touch Hollywood is. This drama retold the story of the tennis match between fifty-one year old ex-champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Wimbledon Women’s Champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) on September 20, 1973. It addressed the prize money point, with King and a group of women’s players forming an alternative league, sponsored by the tobacco giant Virginia Slims, in order to earn sums closer to those earned by men. The league story is more interesting than the eventual match. King simply outlasted the puffing middle-aged Riggs on court. Audiences watched the film without a sense of elation or of justice being served; the big-picture ‘Battle of the Sexes’ (between Trump and Clinton) had already been lost and Riggs’ deluded pathos didn’t resonate. The film certainly suffered from neither star being a convincing tennis player; tennis is harder to fake than boxing, hence the success of the latter genre.
For me, the only zeitgeist-stoking American film of 2017 was It, a horror film adapted from a Stephen King doorstop about a killer clown. In spite of the general consensus that It was not scary, the film managed to gross $694.2 million worldwide against a $35 million budget.
But what of 2018? Production schedules being what they are, there won’t be a swift reflection of the #MeToo phenomenon. Depressingly, only four big budget studio productions – The Spy Who Dumped Me, Blockers, A Wrinkle in Time and The Darkest Minds – are directed by women; two comedies and two young adult fantasies based on successful novels respectively. Compare it to 2017 releases The Beguiled, Underworld: Blood Wars, Detroit, Everything Everything, Unforgettable, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Rough Night, Home Again and Wonder Woman and the list is shockingly short and lacking in diverse subject matter. As far as mainstream American cinema is concerned, 2018 will see a re-evaluation of what passes for popular entertainment. If The 15:17 to Paris, a fact-based thriller starring a trio of real life American heroes, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone, playing themselves is a hit, then the star system could implode altogether.